The Fame of Derek Walcott
(That last infirmity of Noble mind)
To scorn delights, and live laborious dayes
1. The Fair Guerdon
Seamus Heaney once sent me a postcard from St. Lucia, beginning, “Well, it’s one thing to feature with a Beowulf helmet in a Mason article. It’s something else to be on the national stamps.” The twenty-cent stamp in question bore the visage of his close friend and fellow Nobel laureate, Derek Walcott. “See 65c also,” Seamus wrote—the larger denomination celebrated the tenth anniversary of Walcott’s prize. Not that Seamus was any less famous, mind you, but he had a good sense of humor about it: “I’ve the whitest paunch on the island—but drink the rummiest punch.” The insouciance belied a lifetime of staggering labor on the part of both poets. And yes, fame is the “fair guerdon,” the Apollonian praise poets hope for, whether publicly or in secret. A strange trick of the mind, to cultivate a playful seriousness, a forthright ambition to commune with the dead. Now Walcott also has a public square in his native Castries named after him—it used to be named for Columbus.
Nobody but an adolescent bore wants to be famous for his person. Just a few years ago Walcott achieved some unwanted renown when, a candidate for the Oxford chair in poetry, he was denounced as a womanizer. Ruth Padel, one of his rivals for the chair, appeared to be behind the accusations, and both poets ultimately lost the race. Not that it was really a loss to Walcott, who got a more congenial position at Essex University. Being in the public eye, though, is not what poets really want; they want their work to be known, to be seen and discussed enough that it might be guaranteed a readership beyond their own time.
An obsession with immortality lies in the very nature of poetry. Sappho warned that without poetry all memory of one’s existence would fade. Dante communed with Virgil and a whole canon of the great damned. Whitman addressed future readers while crossing Brooklyn ferry. Eliot walked with his compound ghost. Heaney had none other than James Joyce telling him to quit whinging and strike his note, and Walcott has had self-justifying conversations with Ovid and Homer. Poets are superstitious critters who think invoking the dead will give their poems immortal life.
Walcott’s poetry is linguistically rich—Helen Vendler called it “macaronic”—dramatically and intellectually diverse, and written with one eye on immortality at all times. The very life of the artist and poet is one of his major subjects—his own life, in fact, the life of someone famous and flawed. His beautiful late collection, White Egrets, is Yeatsian not only in its frankness about old age and sensuality, but also in its constant self-measurement:
If it is true
that my gift has withered, that there’s little left of it,
if this man is right then there’s nothing else to do
but abandon poetry like a woman because you love it
and would not see her hurt, least of all by me;
so walk to the cliff’s edge and soar above it,
the jealousy, the spite, the nastiness, with the grace
of a frigate over Barrel of Beef, its rock;
be grateful that you wrote well in this place,
let the torn poems sail from you like a flock
of white egrets in a long last sigh of release.
However we might judge this self-dramatization, a quality Walcott’s poems have displayed throughout his career, it is human and real and true to the emotions of most poets, who after all are risking far more than critics of their work. Walcott doesn’t let us miss the rhyme of egrets and regrets—his own self-judgment. He’s a character on the stage of his public life. And it’s worth noticing the fullness of the voice and the easy technical mastery of the passage above with its gently rhyming lines.
Set aside Walcott’s flaws—he can be verbose and repetitive and much too concerned with his own stature—and you have a generous, original vision, carnivalesque in its colorings of experience that matters. Indeed, Walcott’s big, dramatic voice and overt musicality are sometimes now held against him. There exist poets and critics for whom the art is all concept, a bloodless disembodiment only a critic could love. But Walcott writes for performance. As he told Edward Hirsch in his Paris Review interview, “I come from a place that likes grandeur; it likes big gestures; it is not inhibited by flourish; it is a rhetorical society; it is a society of performance; it is a society of style.” He has been a successful playwright, founder of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, a “moderately good watercolorist” (in his own words), a writer of both lyric and epic verse, an essayist. And he has been, by the accident of birth and schooling, uniquely positioned to make something compelling of English and its Caribbean dialects—not to mention the patois of his partly francophone island.
A substantial portion of his legacy will be due to work not under consideration here—his epic poem, Omeros, and his plays. The latest selection of his poems, made by his friend and former student Glyn Maxwell, is a thick tome, but definitely not a tomb. At just over 600 pages, it outweighs the 2007 Selected done by Edward Baugh, as well as the Collected Poems published in 1987. While it includes no excerpts from Omeros, the new book still feels too inclusive at times, an inevitable consequence of Walcott’s expansive manner—Hirsch places him in “a line of New World poets from Whitman through St. John Perse to Aimé Césaire and Pablo Neruda.” Others might find in him a version of the “egotistical sublime.” Yet some of the best work in this volume is about characters other than the poet: haunted colonials, sailors, calypso singers.
Walcott’s facility proves that nobody owns poetry. It can come from anywhere, including tiny islands bereft of substantial museums or monuments. With his mixed African and European blood, his schooling in “the mighty line of Marlowe” and the pidgin of the streets, his painter’s eye for color and detail, his social conscience and theatricality, Walcott has been able to bring a fresh Renaissance complexity to Caribbean literature. My own anthology of his best poems would be shorter than this, but so what? The occasion is not one for niggling, but for noticing what is most substantial and rewarding in the work—what is likely to remain when the fame has withered away.
2. Prodigy and Prodigal
Walcott found it a blessing to have come from the cultural periphery, not from the imperial center. Not only was he given access to astonishing natural beauty, an island of abrupt green hills in a colorfully teeming sea, but several empires surrounded him in language, educating him not only in classrooms but also in the streets, where English and French dialects were being remade. He told Hirsch, “I have felt from my boyhood that I had one function and that was somehow to articulate, not my own experience, but what I saw around me.” Of West Indian literature he said, “what we were deprived of was also our privilege. There was great joy in making a world that so far, up to then, had been undefined.” He was only a year old when his father died of mastoiditis, but he grew up in a home where the arts and literature were honored. His mother helped him publish a volume of sensitive and assured poems when he was only nineteen.
In a Green Night (1960), Walcott’s first trade book, contains several defining poems, including the anthology piece “A Far Cry from Africa,” in which the Mau Mau rebellion shocks him into postcolonial awareness. Much of the work is a poet’s coming of age—encounters with art and language—saved from egotism by a ritual grace and awareness of other people’s lives: “K with quick laughter, honey skin and hair / and always money. In what beach shade, what year / has she so scented with her gentleness / I cannot watch bright water but think of her. . . .” The book’s title poem evokes Andrew Marvell, while the gorgeous “A Sea-Chanty” makes it clear that Whitman’s Adamic naming has schooled the young provincial.
Early on, the influences were all there—including a Joycean soul fretting in the shadow of the King’s English. His second book, The Castaway (1965), offers (again like Joyce) a studied scatology:
Pleasures of an old man:
Morning: contemplative evacuation, considering
The dried leaf, nature’s plan.
In the sun, the dog’s feces
Crusts, whitens like coral.
We end in earth, from earth began.
In our own entrails, genesis.
The castaway is not only Crusoe-like in his lonely sea scanning, but is refuse himself, a throwaway of empire whose shit beginnings have to be seen in a new light. The young Walcott had been an avid student of painting, finding his island in the colors and compositions of Cézanne, and had picked up on existing literary tropes he could recycle: Whitman’s egalitarian lists, Joyce’s frankness about the body, Shakespeare’s self-consciousness about art, the satire of Byron, and calypso. Robinson Crusoe was a particularly fruitful book for the West Indian poet. “One of the most positive aspects of the Crusoe idea,” he told Hirsch, “is that in a sense every race that has come to the Caribbean has been brought here under situations of servitude or rejection, and that is the metaphor of the shipwreck, I think.”
A few of the early poems, like “A Village Life” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” allude to his first visits to North America, the experience of cold weather and racism. You can see the young poet trying on stylistic and intellectual influences—Eliot, Auden, Lowell—and you can see a self-conscious verbal inflation beginning to set in. Sometimes poems and sequences go on longer than necessary, arresting only in certain bright moments. The Gulf (1969) interests mainly as a book of political anger, responding to the Vietnam War, the assassinations in the US, corruption in Caribbean regimes. Never as pessimistic as V. S. Naipaul in such books as The Mimic Men and Guerrillas, Walcott has not been blind to the problems of the West Indies—the poverty, which can look “colorful” to tourists and artists alike, the political inefficacy, the smug philistinism of a culture offering little support to creative spirits. Yet he remains appalled by the frank racism of so many Western commentators, such as James Anthony Froude. His answer has not been activism, but art, insisting on the inherent dignity and honor of beautiful expression, refusing to serve anybody’s reductive agendas.
I applaud him for it, but I also see too much of the struggle of making in the poems. His early autobiography, Another Life (1973), already overplays the self-conscious literary metaphor: “Verandas, where the pages of the sea / are a book left open by an absent master. . . .” The world is always a page or a canvas, so the only heroism lies in art. The same aesthetic obsessions provide charm and entertainment, of course, and the best parts of Another Life such as his abecedary of local characters in Chapter 3 allow the lives of others into the foreground. If he had written an Under Milk Wood of Castries it might have been a masterpiece.
The disadvantage of a book this big is having to be part editor, having to pick and choose your own anthology; the advantage is having the freedom to do just that. My own favorite period in Walcott’s work begins with Sea Grapes (1976) and runs through the next two volumes, The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979) and The Fortunate Traveller (1982). No doubt this has something to do with autobiography—these were the years in which I began to see his books in the stores, began to read him with real curiosity and to consider writing poems of my own. The first of these books contains two of Walcott’s best short poems. I’ll quote one of them, “Sea Grapes,” in its entirety:
That little sail in light
which tires of islands,
a schooner beating up the Caribbean
for home, could be Odysseus,
home-bound on the Aegean,
that father and husband’s
longing, under gnarled sour grapes, is
like the adulterer hearing Nausicaa’s name
in every gull’s outcry;
This brings nobody peace. The ancient war
between obsession and responsibility
will never finish and has been the same
for the sea-wanderer or the one on shore
now wriggling on his sandals to walk home,
since Troy lost its old flame,
and the blind giant’s boulder heaved the trough
from whose ground-swell the great hexameters come
to finish up as Caribbean surf.
The classics can console. But not enough.
In other poems Walcott wonders whether he has been a good husband and father, finding exile in divorce as much as geography, but here the private life is made universal through Homeric myth. The conflation of Greece and the Caribbean reminds us that all cultures need their poets for a sense of identity and connection. “The ancient war / between obsession and responsibility” is one of Walcott’s major themes, here given simple and beautiful expression, and the poem’s final line remains (as I said in another essay long ago) one of his best pentameters. This version of the poem has been subtly revised. I miss the old opening, “That sail which leans on light . . .” But he has introduced a new pun in Troy losing its old flame (formerly “since Troy sighed its last flame”), and his penultimate line used to refer “to the conclusions of exhausted surf.” The new version sounds less impressive but might be truer.
The second short poem I particularly admire in Sea Grapes is “Love After Love.” I wish I could quote it and “Dark August” and all of “Sainte Lucie,” another ecstatic list mixing English names and patois. The Star-Apple Kingdom and The Fortunate Traveller contain two of Walcott’s best narrative poems, “The Schooner Flight” and “The Spoiler’s Return”—the latter a calypso satire in which he makes fun of his nemesis, V. S. Nightfall. These are poems demonstrating that Walcott is a great poet of multiculturalism because he is not pious about it—he is sensual and alive. The ending of “The Schooner Flight” must be among his most beautiful passages:
The bowsprit, the arrow, the longing, the lunging heart—
the flight to a target whose aim we’ll never know,
vain search for one island that heals with its harbor
and a guiltless horizon, where the almond’s shadow
doesn’t injure the sand. There are so many islands!
As many islands as the stars at night
on that branched tree from which the meteors are shaken
like falling fruit around the schooner Flight.
But things must fall, and so it always was,
on one hand Venus, on the other Mars;
fall, and are one, just as this earth is one
island in archipelagoes of stars.
My first friend was the sea. Now is my last.
I stop talking now. I work, then I read,
cotching under a lantern hooked to the mast.
I try to forget what happiness was,
and when that don’t work, I study the stars.
Sometimes is just me, the soft-scissored foam
as the deck turn white and the moon open
a cloud like a door, and the light over me
is a road in white moonlight taking me home.
Shabine sang to you from the depths of the sea.
Walcott isn’t principally a lyric poet, but a poet of historical meditations, narratives and dramas. “Forest of Europe,” his poem of literary friendship for Joseph Brodsky, has wonderful things in it, but I am more fascinated by the mysterious fiction “Koenig of the River,” like something out of Conrad:
Koenig felt that he himself was being read
like the newspaper or a hundred-year-old novel.
“The Queen is dead! Kaiser dead!” the voices shouted.
And it flashed through him those trunks were not wood
but that the ghosts of slaughtered Indians stood
there in the mangroves, their eyes like fireflies
in the green dark, and that like hummingbirds
they sailed rather than ran between the trees.
The river carried him past his shouted words.
The schooner had gone down without a trace.
“There was a time when we ruled everything,”
Koenig sang to his corrugated white reflection.
It’s a poem of spooky, inexplicable madness, like one of Werner Herzog’s films.
Walcott’s technique in these volumes is effortless, sometimes lofty but rarely dull. The historical emphasis will remind poetry readers of Robert Lowell, but I often find Walcott more rewarding because his landscapes are more diverse and complex, his stance less entitled. I like his willingness to pun, to let a little goofiness into the mix (“Youth is stranger than fiction,” he remarks in a later book). And The Fortunate Traveller concludes with another of his best short poems where the loftiness is deserved. “The Season of Phantasmal Peace” begins with an image that could well come from Sufism:
Then all the nations of birds lifted together
the huge net of the shadows of the earth
in multitudinous dialects, twittering tongues,
stitching and crossing it. They lifted up
the shadows of long pines down trackless slopes,
the shadows of glass-faced towers down evening streets,
the shadow of a frail plant on a city sill—
the net rising soundless at night, the birds’ cries soundless, until
there was no longer dusk, or season, decline, or weather,
only this passage of phantasmal light
that not the narrowest shadow dared to sever.
Walcott has always equated poetry with prayer, and this poem is one of the rare transcendent moments in contemporary poetry.
The next phase of Walcott’s career would be dominated by Omeros—part epic, part meditation on postcolonial identity. The five books of shorter poems published between 1984 and 2004 are far less compelling, from my point of view, as if the poet had become more prodigal, more spendthrift with words. My own tendency here is to anthologize passages rather than whole poems. In Midsummer (1984) his Gauguin says, “I am Watteau’s wild oats, his illegitimate heir. / Get off your arses, you clerks, and find your fate, / the devil’s prayer book is the hymn of patience, / grumbling in the fog. Pack, leave! I left too late.” Again, Walcott excels at dramatic voice, though he still has moments of lovely tenderness, like this from the end of the book:
Where’s my child’s hymnbook, the poems edged in gold leaf,
the heaven I worship with no faith in heaven,
as the Word turned toward poetry in its grief?
Ah, bread of life, that only love can leaven!
Ah, Joseph, though no man ever dies in his own country,
the grateful grass will grow thick from his heart.
The Arkansas Testament (1987) contains bitter passages, as in “Gros-Ilet,” about a village where “the language is that of slaves,” or “White Magic,” which lashes the other direction: “Our myths are ignorance, theirs are literature.” More often he works in long sequences of poems held loosely together by meditative nets. The title sequence of The Bounty (1997) arrests less often than it might but offers moments of beautiful whimsy: “I am moved like you, mad Tom, by a line of ants; / I behold their industry and they are giants.” But in other poems the verbal inflation bedevils him: “. . . the dragonflies drift like a hive of adjectives loosened / from a dictionary, like bees from the hive of the brain. . . .” What could I write in the margin next to that but “Ugh”? I wrote it again next to this from The Prodigal (2004): “Blessed are the small farms conjugating Horace, / and the olive trees as twisted as Ovid’s syntax, / Virgilian twilight on the hides of cattle/ and the small turreted castles on the Tuscan slopes.” One has to wonder what Glyn Maxwell was thinking, including such stuff.
What Walcott needs to reach for more often is the simplicity of his best poems. Reread Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses” or Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and you will find profundity without a misplaced syllable. In general, that is not the kind of artist we have in Walcott. Yet the gifts abound, and at least one of them came late.
3. White Egrets
Published in 2010, White Egrets is not a perfect book, but it is a beautiful one. Among its pleasures I find Walcott’s tribute to his home island in “The Lost Empire”:
This small place produces
nothing but beauty, the wind-warped trees, the breakers
on the Dennery cliffs, and the wild light that loosens
a galloping mare on the plain of Vieuxfort make us
merely receiving vessels of each day’s grace,
light simplifies us whatever our race or gifts.
I’m content as Kavanagh with his few acres,
for my heart to be torn to shreds like the sea’s lace,
to see how its wings catch color when a gull lifts.
There’s a Yeatsian old man’s lustfulness as well as wistfulness in the book, and his descriptive powers, always a strength, are undimmed:
Here on the blazing instance of an afternoon, the tiring
heart is happy, the hot sea crinkles like tin,
in the tide pools the black rocks are firing
their usual volleys of mullet in their clear basin;
this is the stillness and heat of a secret place,
where what shapes itself in a rock-pool is a girl’s face.
In the drama of the poet’s argument with himself and his critics, White Egrets has a quiet elegance—less a resignation than a letting go. His oldest friends are dead or soon will be (Seamus Heaney died just a year ago as I write). The poems find him in beautiful places like Italy and St. Lucia, and the world is, after all, amazing in itself. As important as Walcott’s invective can be, he has always been a poet for whom “The perpetual ideal is astonishment.” I find him a tonic for the jaded academics writing so much of our poetry today, as if beauty were beneath their contempt. He is a poet of history, seen from an important periphery, and a writer of vital and colorful drama. The classics may not sufficiently console, but they endure as much as anything, and Walcott has surely glimpsed Elysian Fields beyond mere personal fame. Though each reader will ultimately have to make his own selection, The Poetry of Derek Walcott is an honorable beginning.